Mar 21, 2022 • 9M

David Davis

on emotional risk

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Amanda Donohoe sitting and smoking on the edge of a bathtub in lingerie, about to kill an unsuspecting young man, in Ken Russell’s "The Lair of the White Worm" (1988)

If you saw me writing on my vacation, no you didn’t. See you in April.

As regular readers may have noticed, I do my best to distinguish SM from sex without separating them entirely. The reasons for this are both practical and political.

The practical: you must know what you want to get what you want (failing that, you should know when you don’t know what you want). For me, deciding with my partners whether and how a scene will be sexual makes good common sense. Being prepared instead of spontaneous—or rather, preparing to be spontaneous—is as impedimentary to a good time as determining whether someone has a latex allergy or figuring out who will host. Which is to say that it isn’t impedimentary at all.

The political: Dismissing leather as purely sexual is a tactic to delegitimize its role in liberation movements and its function as a hub, engendered by semi-legal and illegal sexual behavior, for “interclass communication,” to paraphrase Chip Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. It’s also the mechanism by which perverts are pathologized and disciplined by the state and its apparatuses. Unfortunately, sanitizing leather of its sexuality—and of its history—has more recently emerged to accomplish, essentially, the same goal.

So, to recap: sex and SM are not the same thing, except when they are. As I gestured toward in one of my most popular DAVID posts, this nuance is as complicating as it is clarifying. “So-and-so is looking to get topped,” a friend might reveal about another friend. “Sex-topped or SM-topped?” a third friend demands1. Often requiring friendly debate, this distinction translates into the best kind of gossip: informative yet mysterious, satisfying yet inconclusive. (How dull it would be to be confined by sexual and romantic scripts that don’t allow for erotic detective work!) In denaturalizing sex and pleasure and divesting from monogamy and legal/biological family, we begin to have more choices, both with regards to what we “can” do2 and, more importantly, to what we can feel and experience.

Freedom isn’t free (non-derogatory). When we shred the scripts for normal, legal, sane, healthy, procreative heterosexual kinship, our relationships transform, multiply, and variegate. When you abandon the dating-to-monogamous-marriage pipeline; when you second-guess the idea that it’s natural to want family, sex, or your experience of gender to be a certain, specific, predictable way; when you begin to experience your feelings as they arrive rather than resist the unexpected ones, the clock starts working against you. Allowing your body to perceive, react, process, luxuriate, suffer, grieve, and heal requires more time than capitalism allows.

The Lair of the White Worm (1988) - Backdrops — The Movie Database (TMDB)

In February, I began writing about a scene I did with my friend Daemonumx, which was my first proper scene with her as a rope bottom. She tied me up and dangled me from a bespoke suspension structure in her apartment. I was warned that it would hurt, but it didn’t.

“That’s because you’re an experienced masochist,” Daemonumx said. This was validating but also scary, because it meant that she, as an experienced sadist, must hurt me harder in order to attain the effect we’re both looking for.

In rope, strength, flexibility, and well-developed interoception and proprioception3 can make your pain threshold higher, but as I’ve learned through yoga, the shapes that your body can make don’t really matter to the practice itself. Headstands and half-monkeys are impressive, but they’re not the point (in fact, advanced poses like these are only a couple hundred years old, while yoga itself goes back millennia). Attaining calm and relaxation through meditation, breath work, and a good stretch can be done by any body. The rest is just showboating.

So it goes with rope, or any other kind of scene. Discovering your limits4 while experiencing a full spectrum of sensation is a value-neutral activity that is relative to your unique body. I am deeply moved and intimidated by heavy masochists, and am likewise sometimes dismissive of SM activities that no longer challenge me, but in my better moments, I’m one of those people who basically thinks that everyone should get a trophy just for participating. A practice is not a competition, and treating it like one is a waste of everyone’s time.

While it’s tempting to pat myself on the back for needing more, Daemonumx can give it to me with humbling ease. Last week she tied me again, and this time it did hurt, though it could have hurt more (and probably will next time). I look forward to it. It’s astonishing how much pain can be managed once you learn the basics of pain management5.

If you’re not hitting your pain limit every moment of every scene—and for my money, you really should not try to—you have the opportunity to undergo other kinds of sensation. Even without a lot of pain, SM presents a fair amount of risk. The physical risks are more obvious, and far more fetishized by vanilla culture. The emotional ones get a lot less attention.

Experienced as I am, I can’t predict how a scene will make me feel emotionally, anymore than I can predict how it will make me feel physically. Daemonumx is my girlfriend’s best friend and my platonic friend. To put ourselves in this intimate scenario poses a particular kind of emotional risk, at least for me. Will I be afraid in front of my friend, with whom I am not in the habit of fear? Will I cry in front of my friend, with whom I’m not in the habit of crying? Will I get turned on? Will I get angry? It feels like a statement of the obvious as well as an ageless profundity to say: To allow oneself to feel is the definition of vulnerability.

SM is sex and it’s also not sex. In embracing this paradox instead of sticking to the script, even one of the meager ones supplied for “deviant” behavior, we take a risk that still goes mostly unacknowledged in the wider world. I can put the activity—rope bondage—into a bucket—hanging out with a friend—but that doesn’t mean it can’t crawl out of the bucket again, like a curious octopus. “I recognise in the urge to shape narrative an urge to dominate, to manipulate and control the human in service of a greater desire for meaning,” as Huw Lemmey wrote in a recent newsletter. As a writer, I used to associate this urge with the empty screen. As a player, however, I’m beginning to see it everywhere else, too.

David tweets at @k8bushofficial. Preorder X: A Novel, out on June 28.

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I’m aware that not everyone talks like this, nor do I think they need to, but this is how my core cluster of dykes conducts our gossip, so!


Can I have five girlfriends at once? Can I have sex with any gender of person that I want without “losing” my identity? Can I have not just sexual freedom, but obligation to and interdependence with other people grounded in something other than biological and legal notions of belonging?


Which can be delayed or impacted, by the way, by trauma.


Not every scene should be a challenge of your limits, in my humble opinion. I think that’s a bad idea for most people. It’s like anything else: give yourself rests, allow yourself to explore, grant yourself curiosity, and don’t be too hard on yourself!


Even more astonishing is how pointless this skill set is in the face of pain that is not being carefully controlled by someone you trust. But that’s a topic for another post.